Two common types of 5-way switches…
The questions I get asked in response to people reading my stuff on guitar wiring often relate to the 5-way pickup selector switch so I thought I’d write a brief explanation of how it works. Understanding how the 5-way switch on your guitar works is key to successful guitar wiring. Knowing what goes on inside the switch may sound like a simple, maybe trivial, detail but it’s something we all need to understand and it’s not as easy as it first seems.
The Fender 5-way switch…
…and the “import” type.
There are two common types of 5-way selector switches in the guitar world – the Fender type and the “import” type. Both types are functionally identical but differ in physical layout. It’s easy to see which type you’re dealing with. The Fender-type switches viewed from below have two rows of 4 contacts, either side of the circular body of the switch. The import-type switches have a single row of 8 contacts in a line.
Fender-type switches are, obviously, found in Fender guitars but are easily available so could find their way into any guitar, most likely Strat-type guitars. Import-type switches are often found in other makes like Ibanez and on replacement pickguard assemblies. If you have a look at my HSH wiring page and scroll down you’ll see I have an import switch in my Godin SD.
OK some people will know this already but let’s just be clear about switch terminology. A switch as you see it on the bench in front of you will often be a set of switches, mechanically connected within a single assembly. Wikipedia explains. The important thing to remember is the number of ‘poles’ is the number of switches that you have ganged together off a single lever in the component and the ‘throw’ or ‘way’ part describes how those switches operate.
Schematic representation of a normal guitar switch
When I first looked at guitar wiring, here’s the bit I found difficult to grasp:
Our normal guitar 5-way selector switch is not a 5-way switch – it’s a 3-way switch!
More specifically, it’s a 2-pole 3-way switch.
A little bit of history will make this clearer… The original Fender Stratocaster switches were 2-pole 3-way switches (that’s actually what I have on my schematic, I think you’ll see why in a bit) and were intended only to select either the neck, middle or bridge pickup. However these were “make before break” switches where, as the switch is moved across from one position to the next, the next contact is made before the previous contact is broken. People found that if you could get the switch to rest in between those three positions that you’d actually have both neck and middle or middle and bridge pickups connected at the same time and, most importantly, it sounded good! It became a common thing to rest the 3-way switch in between the positions, so common that in the 60’s people were filing notches in the detente mechanism of the 3-way switch. These became the “notch” positions. In the 70’s, Fender adopted this popular mod into their stock switch thus becoming what we now use and call a 5-way switch but is, in fact, a 3-way switch with 5 positions.
Hmmm, so how do I wire it up?
OK, remember that the Fender-type and import-type are functionally identical, they only differ in the physical layout of the contacts – this means the schematic is the same for both switches.
In my schematics, I’ve labelled the switched contacts 1, 3 and 5 to correspond to what Strat users would know as positions 1, 3 and 5 (or Bridge, Middle and Neck). Position 2 is actually where the switch wiper rests on both 1 and 3. Likewise, position 4 is where the wiper rests on both 3 and 5.
The best way of working out which contact is which is to use a multimeter and see for yourself which contacts are connected to each other in the 5 switch positions. On the Fender-type and some import-type switches you’re given a good clue because you can actually see the mechanism or see through the switch casing. Watch this as you move the switch through the 5 positions – you can see which contact is always in circuit (the wiper) and which ones are in circuit in each position (1, 2, 3, 4 and 5). This method of visualising the switch also helps when it comes to fitting the switch to your pickguard and getting it the right way around! Now, where does the wire from the bridge pickup go again…
Hopefully this all makes sense now! I’ve drawn out a diagram below showing how the contacts relate between the schematic representation and the Fender- and import-type switches. I’ve shaded the two parts (poles) of the switch red and blue:
Just to re-cap, here’s a table of the switch connections that are made in each of the five switch positions:
|Common (0) connected to…|
|2||1 and 3||1 and 3|
|4||3 and 5||3 and 5|
If you’ve found this useful or have any comments on how this article could be improved, feel free to drop me a line (thanks to ChrisK of GuitarNuts 2 who set me straight on the history of the switch).